The Nacelle Company has been making some major moves in the collectibles industry since officially launching its toy division earlier this year. So far, the company has announced plans to relaunch Robo Force, Sectaurs, Big Bad Battle Caps, and more. At last month’s Comic-Con International: San Diego (SDCC), we sat down with Nacelle CEO and Founder Brian Volk-Weiss for a candid talk about lawsuits; choosing the right toy brands to revive; the company’s new, pop-culture-focused docuseries, Icons Unearthed; and more.
The Pop Insider: So, to start, what are some of the major reveals out of your panel at this show?
Brian Volk-Weiss: So our show, Icons Unearthed, was picked up for season two, and the topic of season two is The Simpsons. So if you were [at the panel], we got a couple of sneak peeks. I mean we just started, so nothing too crazy. But Star Wars was well-received obviously, but to get a pick this quickly, it’s kind of nice. So yeah, that’s the big news to be completely honest, and I’m curious to see what I do. We were going to reveal the prototypes of one of our toy lines.
PI: Which one?
BVW: Well, that’s the problem. The toy business is, uh, extremely … we just entered it about a year ago.
PI: Sure, that’s definitely something I wanted to talk about.
BVW: Yeah. So the toy business is apparently a full-contact sport. To give you a sense of scale, we’ve acquired seven copyrights. We are involved with four legal matters with those seven copyrights. And by the way, all of these — The youngest of them is 42 years old. So the fact that we’re buying copyrights that nobody has done anything with for four, five, six, in one case seven decades. And we announced that we’re doing something with it, and some of the studios and other companies are like, “No, no, that’s ours.” So the thing we were gonna announce [at the panel] which, again, we’ll see what I do or don’t do, but we have the prototypes with us, and we were planning on revealing them.
PI: I heard about the Mattel, one. I know about that one.
BVW: Yeah. So that’s one of the four. That’s one. And by the way, ironically, probably the least of the four complication-wise. That’s probably the easiest to figure out. So. And we’re talking and I don’t know what’ll happen, but the conversations are productive. That’s what I’ve been told I can say. And that is accurate.
PI: That’s good. But still time-consuming and messes up the timeline.
BVW: Yeah. Like I said, it’s a full-contact sport. I’ve … this is basically my fifth career, and the prior four were much easier when we entered them.
PI: Well, I was going to ask about that and getting into the toy business. Because I know you just launched [the toy] branch in February?
PI: What was the drive behind doing that? And then my next question was going to be “What were some of the biggest surprises?” But I think we already started talking about that.
BVW: Getting a legal notice every Friday. That was definitely a big surprise. [laughs] No, basically if you look at my career, I just keep turning hobbies into jobs. So, I love standup comedy. We did a lot of standup comedy, and we still do a lot of standup comedy. I love documentaries. We started making documentaries, yada, yada, yada. And it really just got to the point where our other businesses were doing, you know, were doing okay. And I don’t know, like … I heard a great quote just a couple days ago: “Creativity requires momentum.”
PI: I like that.
BVW: Brilliant. And a guy said it to me offhandedly, and I’m like, that’s probably the smartest thing I’ve heard in 10 years. So I think he’s right. And for me, at least, I didn’t go to business school. I have a communications degree worth nothing. No offense if you have one, I’m sure you’re putting it to better use.
PI: I have a magazine degree, which is a little weirder.
BVW: No. At least that’s a thing. Everyone communicates. I might as well get a degree in food! Or walking! But anyway, I have no training. I didn’t go to business school. I don’t have an MBA, to put it mildly. So the standup comedy seems to be doing well, our documentaries are doing well. We’re selling more shows than ever. We have 11 shows in production right now. Four years ago, we had two shows in production at the same time, and that was the first time that had ever happened. So things were doing okay. And I like toys, and this guy reached out to me out of nowhere, which happens a lot, and he was a toy agent. So he just kind of knew where everything was. His name’s Michael Goodman.
And he was like, “If you hire me, I can do X, Y, and Z. I can find the copyrights. I can do this. I can do that.” And one of the first that he found was Robo Force. So we went out, we got it, we did the deal, found a factory in China. We hired this guy named David Vonner, ironically, from Mattel. He was the head of boys’ toys. And, we just started making toys. Like we don’t know what we’re doing. We really don’t. That’s not me trying to be funny or humble. We don’t know what we’re doing. Well, rephrase” I don’t know what I’m doing. David Vonner knows what he’s doing. Michael Goodman knows. Like, they know what they’re doing.
This is the crazy thing about making toys. You know, I’ve been in business for 24 years. I get stuff from China now every day. Before today, I never heard anything from China. So I woke up, I mean, literally this morning. This isn’t like a story from a week or a month ago. I woke up this morning and the factory had sent us video of — I mean, I could literally show it to you — of them pulling the molds apart and like seeing if our pieces are coming out easily or not. And that’s from an email I got, like, five months ago that was like, “Can you approve the funding of the molds?” And I’m like, “Okay.” And then I forgot all about it. And then I got a video this morning of stuff being pulled out of the molds. One of the characters has an arm on his back, and they literally have a video of that back arm getting pulled out of the mold. From an email I just said okay to five months ago and forgot about. So that’s how it’s going. I don’t know if that answers your question.
PI: It did. That was really interesting. And then the biggest surprise has been the legal…
BVW: Yeah. By the way, it’s not like one company. And it’s not just toy … it’s not just Mattel. I wanna be very clear that all the other things are with non-toy companies. They’re literally with, like, movie studios. And they’re literally like, “Hey …” I mean, they’re not saying this of course, but the gist of what the letters say is, “Hey, you know that thing no one has talked about for four decades? Um, yeah, that’s ours.” It’s like, well, how come we haven’t talked about it for 40 years? It’s like Whac-A-Mole.
PI: That’s so interesting. And actually, that brings me to another question I had. As you’ve already said, the copyrights you’ve acquired and the toys you’re going to be making are all for properties that have kind of been laying dormant. Was that a strategy you went into this with? Delving into the depths of toy history and pop culture history and finding these niche things? Or did that just happen organically?
BVW: If anybody from the company was listening to your question and they heard you say the word “strategy,” they’d all start laughing. We’re not the biggest on strategies. We’re the biggest on kind of jumping into the deep end of the pool and seeing if we can survive. So the idea was — And again, who knows if this will work or not. I think it will. There’s some cool stuff for maybe 2023 Comic-Con. But it was like, let’s buy a copyright. Let’s see if we can sell it as a TV show and make the toys at the same time. And that’s what we’re doing. So we got Robo Force, we attached writers, we attached talent, and then we’re gonna be taking it to market, and God willing it sells. And we’re gonna make the toys.
Because what usually happens —and I learned this the hard way four or five years ago with something else — a company like ours, we try to sell something to a Netflix or an Apple or a whatever, and they’ll be like, “Great. We love Robo Force. We’re gonna buy it. And we’re going to let someone else make the toys because you don’t know how to make toys, right? And then if they make money, we’ll give you 3%.” So that’s the reason why it’s important for us to have started making the toys. Because normally, you would wait to have the show, and then you green light it, you start making [the toys]. These shows take like two years to make, so it’s perfect. Takes about two years to make a toy. So that’s how you should have done it, and that’s how I think someone who actually practiced — what’s that word? Strategy? That’s what they would’ve done.
But because of that problem I had like four or five years ago, I was like, we need to be able to sell a show and when the network says, “Wait a minute. You guys don’t make toys,” I can be like, “Yes, I do. Look at this. Here’s Wrecker.” So that’s why. And by the way, they’re selling. I mean, between one and sometimes 30 a day. People are buying them. And it’s a crazy business. Let me tell you something good about the business. I’m sitting here complaining about lawsuits, so now let me tell you something good about the business. Like, thank you, Hasbro. Thank you, Super7. We announce the toy, and they just start sending money.
Every other business I’ve ever been in, I’m fronting all the costs. When I do a standup special or Icons Unearthed, that’s our doc. I’m financing it. And then Vice licensed it. Other companies in other countries will license it. But I mean, we’ll be in the red for years. So the toy business, the way it works in 2022, apparently, is we tell the world we’re doing Robo Force, and they start wiring us money. I mean, we’re still in the red, don’t get me wrong. And we’re constantly wiring money to the factory before the money comes from the buyers but going back to strategy, unless I’ve missed something, we’ll probably have 70% of our costs covered by the time they arrive here from China.
PI: Which is great.
BVW: Yeah. I mean, there are standup specials we’ve put out like four years ago that are still in the red. And that’s my bread and butter. So the bad news, it rains lawsuits. The good news, people are paying. By the way, we announced Robo Force March 26. We sold over a thousand figures those first three days. Those people aren’t getting them until like November.
PI: I know, isn’t that wild? That’s actually kinda short in the toy space. Some of the collectibles stuff, you could buy it now and get it in two years.
BVW: By the way, I don’t know about you personally. But, like, I don’t do that.
PI: I very rarely do that.
BVW: I’ve never done it. I’ve literally never done it. I’m the idiot who’s not spending $500 on the Jabba the Hutt barge, but is thrilled to spend a thousand when I see it at Comic-Con. Just because like my brain doesn’t work like that. Like, I’ll forget about it. Or the way I’ve found to cheat a little bit, my friend, Jeff, he’ll tell me, “Hey, do you want this?” I’ll be like, “Yeah.” He’ll be like, “Venmo me the money.” So I guess I have done it, but always through my buddy Jeff. But anyway, that’s probably an interview for another time.
PI: So I know you said there’s not really a strategy, but as you picked the brands you did, what about them appealed to you? What was it that made you go, “This is the one to pick?”
BVW: Robo Force was an anomaly because I have always loved Robo. Like, always. Because they’re bonkers. They don’t have legs. They don’t have feet. They got the stupid suction cup. It was a gigantic disaster that bankrupted the company that made them. I have been obsessed, obsessed with Robo Force probably since I was like 18 or 19. So that’s the anomaly.
The others, it’s just raw creativity. I was never a Power Lords fan. And you know, Michael Goodman said Power Lords is available. And I was like, well, I’ve heard of it. I know what the logo looks like. But I don’t know. And someone said to me, “Well, you know, Wayne Barlowe did them.” I’m like, I didn’t know. I don’t know if you know Wayne. I mean, he’s one of the greatest creature artists who’s ever lived. And he put a book out — I don’t know when it came out, but I’ve had it since I was probably like 12, maybe 13. I’m like, ooh, Wayne Barlowe. So one night, I’m on Google for like 20 minutes, Power Lords, Power Lords, Power Lords. And I’m like, this is brilliant. Why haven’t I been into this? So something like that has to speak to me. Or, if I’m being honest — and I always try to be — there’s just certain lines that people want back.
PI: Where there’s that grassroots fan demand for it that you could tap into.
BVW: Yeah. And we’re in the process, hopefully, of closing up a deal right now for a new brand, which I guarantee you will be a lawsuit six months later. So we will, god willing, get this copyright and then we’ll start producing our own version of those characters. I don’t know anything about these toys. I don’t get it. But what I do get is they are very, very popular and people want them back. It’s so funny, in interviews, I always start my career at the standup comedy stage. I had a whole career before that, and that career was management. And I managed comedians. It’s the worst job on earth. But it t was like going to grad school. It was the most brilliant training anybody could ever have.
And one of the things that I learned, and it’s probably the most important thing I learned from management, was I would have a client that had sold like 400 tickets in Denver in, let’s say, 2005. And then they go back in 2006. Same amount of shows, same amount of marketing. This time they sold 8,000 tickets. So in 365 days, they literally — I’m not good at math, but whatever percentage 400 is of 8,000, we saw that in a year. I would call Comedy Central. “You’re not gonna believe this. John Doe, Jane Doe, their sales are up 22 million billion percent. You gotta give them a standup special. You gotta put them on a show.” And they’d be like, “No, we don’t think he’s funny.”
So what I learned was it doesn’t matter what I think. Like, I have a job to do. I have my own passions. I have my own beliefs and everything. But at the end of the day, who am I to be a gatekeeper to anybody in the standup comedy stage or the toy world? Every single person in this room has their own opinions. So they gave me the data on this new copyright. I did my own Google research. The data checked out. I also trust my team, by the way. So we moved forward with it. And just because I wasn’t playing with them when I was five, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.
PI: I think that makes a lot of sense.
BVW: We’ll see.
PI: Finally, our publication is primarily merch-based, but I still want to talk about the show, Icons Unearthed.
BVW: Icons Unearthed is — I got to do this because I always forget — on Vice. Tuesdays. 10:00. I did like 80 interviews one day and they were like, “Did you mention, I don’t know, the network? The time it’s on?”
PI: That’s so funny.
BVW: Yes. Vice. 10:00. Tuesdays. Now I’ve done it twice. And the first season is about Star Wars.
PI: I know you have the interview with—
BVW: We have Marcia Lucas. It’s her first on-camera interview ever. It’s her second interview ever.
PI: I have to ask, how did you get that?
BVW: It’s so funny with these types of shows. The people you would think would be hard are usually easy. And the people you would think would be easy are usually extremely hard. So we were interviewing someone who we knew because we’ve interviewed him before and the interview was over, he was taking off his mic, and he goes, “Who’s your white whale, who don’t you have?” And he’s like, “Don’t ask me about George.” And I was like, “Wrong Lucas. We’re looking for Marcia. We know where George is. We can’t find Marcia.” And he is like, “Well, who are you talking to?” We gave him the names. And he was like, “No, you gotta talk to her assistant.” And he gave us her number.
And it took about two weeks of back and forth. She agreed. I woke up one morning — I was supposed to go to New York that day. I woke up, I had an email saying she had agreed, and she’s available tomorrow and for the next nine days. And if there’s anything I’ve learned about people like her, forget about the nine days. I’m going tomorrow. So I literally canceled my New York flight. I had like 30 meetings or whatever, all canceled, and flew to Hawaii to interview her the next day for just under six hours.
Well, I am in show business because of Star Wars. If there’s anything on earth I could probably say I have a Ph.D. in, it would be Star Wars. Every 10 to 15 minutes, she blew my mind with like, “Oh yeah, no, this happened, that happened.” I’m like, what? She was like, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and then George had to go fight for the end battle.” And then she started talking about something else. I’m like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. What do you mean he had to fight for the end battle?” And she was like, “Oh, Fox wanted to kill the end battle.” I’m like, “Well, how would the movie have ended?” And she was like, “Have you seen the film? [laughs] Like, after they rescue Princess Leia and fight off those four TIE fighters, that would’ve been the end of the movie.” She just threw that out there like it was nothing. And I have talked to people that make me look like I’ve never heard of Star Wars. And nobody knows that, nobody.
PI: When you get like six hours of that kind of content, how do you pare that down into these episodes? I imagine that must be nearly impossible.
BVW: It’s gut-wrenching. And this was cable. Like normally with Netflix or Amazon or Disney, there’s a lot of flexibility with the clock, but we don’t have that on broadcast. So you just … it’s painful. But there’s always a Blu-ray. That’ll be our saving grace.
Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.